Feb Q&A (3)

Q: Jaimee asks, I was wondering if you have ever thought of writing a travelogue or a memoir? Your descriptions of locale throughout all of your books are fascinating, and through your blog I have really enjoyed your personal stories about your experiences (such as the cockroach story). Reading your books tends to make me want to pack a suitcase so it made me wonder…

A: If I ever write an autobiography, I will probably use the sections on travel as I did in the one on my web site, in order to illustrate how I draw on the experiences of travel in the writing process. When I was actually on the road, most of the time it was like being tossed in a sack, tiring and uncomfortable and very, very confusing.

Gives you some great stories, though.

Q: I’m curious about your current favorite mystery writers … those who are alive and writing today. Could you list a few, or would that put you too much on the spot? There seem to be a lot of promising newcomers on the shelves these days.

A: I read everyone. At least, it seems that way. I particularly love first-time novels, which have probably more energy in them than any five novels that writer will produce in the future. The list of nominees for Best First Novel over on the MWA site is a good place to start, and you can look at last year’e2’80’99s nominees to see those recommended by the committee I chaired.

I also like the Brits a lot. UK publishing has veered far over the line into the gritty serial killer book, which leaves me yawning, but writers like Catherine Sampson and Zoe Sharp are a joy.

Q: WMD, er, I mean WDI asks, I’m curious about how much backstory you develop for your “series” characters. Do you envision entire lives from childhood, or broad outlines that fill themselves in as new stories develop? I’m interested in this as a general question, but also as it applies to some of Russell’e2’80’99s physical skills. She’s a good rider, but we don’t know much about when she learned or how she keeps it up. Ditto with her martial arts — we know when she started training, but not whether or not (or how) she maintains her skills. Do you carry a sort of vision of her life in which those things play a part, or do you simply allow the skills to manifest as needed and assume she takes care of them herself?(I hope that makes sense!)

A: It’e2’80’99s always a fine line with larger-than-life characters like Russell, what sorts of skills are realistic and which have the reader declaring, Oh come on now. Someone like Russell, raised by money in London and America, would have learned to ride as a child, and although she would have had far sorer muscles than I give her when she rides again after a break, the skill is there. The martial arts thing is mentioned often enough that clearly, she practices with some regularity.

For the most part, you don’e2’80’99t tend to write about a character’e2’80’99s abilities and habits unless you need them for the story. At the same time, the acquisition of new skills has to fit with what we know of the character. So for example when Russell has an immersion course in Hindi, and gains a working knowledge of the language in a month, it’e2’80’99s not too far outside the bounds of possibility. It has already been established that she spends a lot of time with foreign languages, living and dead, so when I came across the results of a language-learning contest held in Oxford, won by two young women who started from scratch and in a month could recite a poem and carry on a simple conversation in their assigned language, well, why not Mary Russell?

Q: Thank you for writing the Mary Russell series. My post-exams reward was to sit in front of the heater with Locked Rooms and a hot chocolate. Sheer bliss. A question that popped into my head last night (I hope it’s not too personal – or worse, airheaded):Can writers make good money from their writings alone? Not including whatever they get from movie deals or merchandise.

A: I’e2’80’99m glad to have provided a comfort moment for a hard-working student. I seem to have an entire subset of readers who indulge in Russell post-exam, perhaps we ought to have annual cocoa parties?

Anyway. It is possible to make a living off writing (which I assume is what you mean by ‘e2’80’9cgood money’e2’80’9d) if you are very lucky, very hard working, and possess a modicum of talent. The average income of a writer is well under $10,000, which in my county might buy you a cardboard box and a bus pass to the soup kitchen.

I happen to have a modicum of talent, I am (to my own surprise) hard-working to the point of obsession, and certainly I have had more luck than I probably deserve. I make a living off my words, the books you buy put a roof over my head, and every day I am grateful for the opportunity to keep on doing what I love. Yes, even on days when the writing goes badly and I feel too stupid to live, I am grateful. I have friends whose writing barely pays for itself, when you factor in typing and child care costs, but they continue to do it. I like to think I would do the same, if I had full-time employment elsewhere.

You have to want it. A lot.

* * *
More on the progress of TOUCHSTONE in a few days.

Posted in


  1. Liz on February 4, 2006 at 1:29 am

    It’e2’80’99s always a fine line with larger-than-life characters like Russell, what sorts of skills are realistic and which have the reader declaring, Oh come on now.

    There’s an entire sub-sub-sub-genre of historical mysteries about lady detectives in the 1920s. I know, because they keep falling into my hands, and I keep reading them. Of the lot, that I’ve found so far, Russell is one of the most plausible and least aggravating. I could make a whole list of cliches that have arisen in this particular sub-sub-sub-genre, and Russell manages to avoid most. (For example, she got all the way through WW1 without once running away to become an ambulance driver. To Holmes’s private relief, no doubt; tracking her down and bringing her back would have been tedious.)

    (‘Most plausible and least aggravating’ probably sounds like faint praise, but really, most of these characters I would happily throw from a bridge, but I adore Russell in all her crankiness.)

  2. Anonymous on February 4, 2006 at 3:49 am

    Laurie, I loved this comment: “When I was actually on the road, most of the time it was like being tossed in a sack, tiring and uncomfortable and very, very confusing.” Since I have a trip ahead of me, to write an article about the American Iris Society Convention in Portland, Oregon, I am fearing just such an experience as you have mentioned. Not the tours of the gardens, of course, but the long plane trip from Virginia to Oregon and back … and the airport stopovers … a combination I regard with deepest foreboding. I’m delighted to hear that I’m not the only one who has those feelings in transit. Iris Lady

  3. Kris G. on February 4, 2006 at 4:52 am

    Laurie, I think an annual cocoa party is a wonderful idea. The Russell novels were my reward after every exam, and now that I’m working, they’re the reward at the end of a hard week or a big project.

  4. Jaimee Drew on February 4, 2006 at 5:52 pm

    Thank you for answering my question, you’ve really made my week! I truly enjoy your writing. When you announce a new book’s release date it goes on the calendar immediately. In red.
    I think that Q&A for your blog is really fascinating- not only your answers, of course, but the questions everyone comes up with. Thanks for the opportunity.

  5. Erin on February 5, 2006 at 9:03 am

    Russell is generally my pre-exam prep as well as post-exam reward. I read BEEK and get into the Russell mindset and tell myself, “Russell can do it, I can do it,” then march in to tackle Neoclassical Physics or Control Systems Engineering and follow it up with more Russell.

    Annual cocoa parties sound wonderful=)

  6. Anonymous on February 6, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. Wow, I guess ‘passionate’ is almost an understatment for those writers who stick it out no matter what. Undoubtably, you deserve all the success you get;o)

    Cocoa parties? *grin*

    Chocolate/Russell-lovers unite!

  7. WDI on February 7, 2006 at 2:02 am

    Thanks for the answer — that’s about how I had it figured, as well. Funny, I actually have never questioned Russell’s language skills, perhaps because my younger self had that facility (whereas my older self has had to work much harder at the martial arts and riding!). But it really is all of a piece. And you do a superb job of writing her in such a way that she remains believable and likeable, no matter how truly amazing she is.

    Kate and Russell have become my rewards for whatever I decide deserves rewarding as soon as the hardbacks hit the shelves 🙂 Cocoa would be wonderful; I’ll bring cookies!

Leave a Comment